Second-guessing yourself

(I've had this post rattling around in my head for a few weeks, and it took a lot of work to get it out. I apologize in advance for how abstract it is. I did that because it's embarrassing.)


There's a broad spectrum of human self-assuredness. On the one end are people with such firmly-held beliefs that their righteousness is unshakable. On the other end are people who will grasp at any new interpretation that might change their views, people so changeable that they never commit to any position. Most people in the middle have a fair understanding of what their gut tells them is right and wrong, and what ways of looking at the world make sense for them. And while as a rationalist I don't like to admit it, I know that people ignore things that contradict their views.

Occasionally people move from side to side on this spectrum. Destabilizing events can cause people to question their assumptions and reevaluate things en masse. They look at the world through wide eyes and see new things everywhere. They stop ignoring. Such is my life in recent months.

One of the mechanisms modernity has invented to initiate and regulate this process of change is therapy. Therapy seeks to take a (presumed flawed) individual and shake them out of their ingrained modes of thought, to make them see their life freshly with a critical eye. It makes them ask why - why do they get angry at one thing and not another, why do they enjoy the things they do, why have they made the choices that got them where they are, et cetera. I'm not seeing a therapist currently, but I'm considering it, and I have indirect contact with their ideas about my life.

So until recently I was in a state of considerable self-assuredness, where I had answers I was satisfied with for the most part. Now I find myself a bit unmoored. I'm trying to change several things about my life that run pretty deep. I could use help, so I'm open to input from a lot of directions I never would have listened to before.

*The Problem*

I'm experiencing a conflict between my beliefs about myself (many of which are very old and some of which are probably bad for me) and others' constructive criticisms. I want to reconsider my life, but I can't accept all these criticisms unquestioningly - I'd disappear.

I find that I'm second-guessing myself. It's introduced a terrible uncertainty, a gnawing doubt under every decision. When I have to negotiate a difficult situation or plan for the future, I have two reactions: first, the tidy one that fits in with my worldview, and second, the question "why" and the possibility that my first reaction is bad for me. I then have two choices: be paralyzed until I'm satisfied I've thought it through, or simply do one thing or another--jump without a safety net.

*The way forward*

Some of my reaction against constructive criticism is pride. I worked hard to understand myself as self-consistently as I do. I was confused as hell in high school, gradually piecing it together until the last of it fell into place and I was satisfied at about age 26. I had flaws, things I didn't do well and I didn't understand why, but I was pretty happy with myself.

Some more of my reaction is probably an attempt to avoid the discomforts of change and doubt. This just happens, and I know I have to work against it.

Still more is a nagging disbelief in the method - therapy - the practical process of improving one's life by letting a professional change the way you see things. I have a few problems with it. First, it's self-serving; it's not in the therapist's best interests to fix you, because that puts them out of a job. Second, I haven't seen a lot of success stories, and some people I respect approach it with great caution.

Third, and probably most bothersome to my rationalist side, there is the question of when have you asked "why" enough times. When are you satisfied with the answer? At what point have you examined yourself sufficiently to explain your behavior and your reactions? The problem is that when a therapist tells you you need to ask why--again--that doctrine is not falsifiable. There doesn't seem to be any justification for digging further, you just keep doing it until you feel better. But what if you're asking the wrong question, or these questions aren't what's making you feel bad in the first place? You wouldn't ask a cancer patient to think about what their home was like when they were a child. You'd get them chemotherapy.

I need change, but I don't know how much. I don't know when to stop changing, and if I knew when, I might not know how. I need to find a way to manage change, and I'm not sure if I trust the professionals. To begin with, I'm going to talk to my friends and family. More perspectives always help, especially from people that know me well. Then, I'm going to fall back on my bedrock principles - fairness and Enlightenment rationalism, to name two. It won't be easy and it won't always be clear, but I've made progress in the past, and I can do it again.